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A Love Letter to a Forest

By Cheta Chua

Maraming beses na kitang nilayasan

Iniwanan at iba ang pinuntahan

Parang bababeng mahirap talagang malimutan

Ikaw lamang ang aking laging binabalikan

Manila, Manila  Infanta, Infanta

I keep coming back to Manila Infanta

Simply no place like Manila Infanta

Manila Infanta , I’m coming home

During this lockdown, I’d always sing Manila by Hotdog to myself except I’d change the lyrics into your name. While Rene Garcia dreams of the urban chaos and noise of Manila, I dream of surrounded by the sea of green and being serenaded by the sounds of the forest.  Of all the places, I’ve missed you the most.  For the past half year, I’ve been yearning to breathe the fresh air and feel those strong chilly winds again.  Last October 4, I finally fell into your embrace once again.

I first became infatuated with you when I declared that I would fulfill my dream of seeing the Rufous Hornbill on my 2nd trip. I’d be teased with those loud resonant calls permeating through the forest. We’d wait for hours to no avail. It would take 4 trips over 2 months to see you but when I finally saw 6 of them far far away in the pouring rain. I experienced ecstasy in seeing that crimson red glide through the forest.

They say that you can’t fully enjoy something if you don’t know them well. Those 5 trips were honestly low on the species count but these  made me learn about you. I had started to understand you kilometer by kilometer and learned more about the trees and the famous hagimits that bring on feeding frenzies. And that – is where I truly fell in love with you.

The mixed flocks that call you home became my favorite mainstays . Each time I’d go to you, I look forward to seeing the deep blue of the Fairy Bluebird, the acrobatics of the Sulphur Billed Nuthatches, the handsome Olive Backed Flowerpecker, the diminutive Citrine Canary Flycatcher,  the melodious Philippine Bulbul, the dapper Elegant Tit, the bossy Blue-headed Fantails and many more. I’d also be treated of sights of all those effortlessly gliding Honey or Gray-Faced Buzzards and Serpent or Rufous Bellied Eagles  I’d hope with each trip you would show me even more of yourself and on the days that you do I’d be so giddy for the entire week.

On my 6th trip, I had the privilege to peer into the sharp piercing eyes of the Luzon Scops Owl in the dead of night. I also spotted the elusive Whiskered Pitta and I finally understood why it was so sought after. From this trip onwards, my favorite hornbill family seemed to show itself more too. I’ve seen them at least 70% of the time since those 5 fruitless trips.

On my 8th trip, I experienced seeing the fantastic and huge Flame-breasted Fruit Dove.

On my 10th trip, I understood why the Philippine Trogon is the ibong adarna.

On my 13th trip after a long long time in lockdown, I finally saw the faces to the soft ringing call of the Cream-bellied Fruit Dove and the three noted call of the Amethyst Brown Dove after staying hidden despite being heard so many times.

Not everything was smooth sailing though because on what was supposed to be my 11th trip. I had actually missed the Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon because I decided to cancel last minute. To make things worse, it was seen through my own binoculars with eyes that weren’t my own.  I immediately went the week after but it seems you punished me for not giving you the time last week. It was especially painful because this was the trip before the lockdown which meant I would not be seeing you for a long while.  On my 12th trip last June, I had gotten tested and medically cleared but the checkpoint  only allowed me to stay for a brief time and I ended up spending more time getting to you than enjoying your beauty.

Even after all these adventures, I’ve still yet to see all of you. Before each trip, I chant the names of all the birds I’ve yet to see – hoping that I can get to meet them. When I’m not with you, I’m always looking for ways to reach my targets asking advice from those that you better. I dream that my hours spent sitting in silence and staring at the forest floor would finally show me the Bicol Ground Warbler after hearing its insect-like call so many times. I dream of seeing that orange flash of the Dwarf Kingfisher. I dream of finally a needle in the haystack that is the Black-crowned Babbler hiding amongst hundreds of birds in a mixed flock. I dream of seeing what seems to be a  common rhabdornis noting the “dirty” breast and white speckled wings and joyously realizing it’s the much rarer Grand Rhabdornis.  I dream of redeeming myself and seeing the red eye of the Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon. I  dare to dream of  hitting the jackpot with other birds not often seen like the Bukidnon Woodcock, Short-crested Monarch, White Fronted Tit and Luzon Bleeding-heart. When I’m not with you, I’m constantly asking those who know you better more tips and information on the habits and spots of each bird. I come to you each time with the goal of getting to know you more.

In those 13 trips, I’ve had the pleasure of having 38 of my lifers from your misty mountains. You were where I really learned how to bird from other great birders.  Even on those days where you don’t show your inhabitants. I’m still enchanted by the fog and the beauty of the forest and all the other critters that call your welcoming forests home.

Despite giving such happiness to so many people – there are still some trying to take you away. Hunters pillage kalaw nests and sell the chicks for a measly sum of 1500 – nothing compared to the number of smiles you’ve made. Fruit doves abandon their nests because of the loudness of passing vehicles. Bleeding-hearts and pittas are trapped in snares. The forest is robbed of its trees for the sake of “development” – a dam nearby and “rest” houses all over.

For a “young” person, I’m really not the idealistic type but your wonder makes me want to act. It pains me to hear Mike, Arne, Lu-ann and co. talk about how Mt. Palay-palay was stolen from them. It strikes fear in me that those deep booming calls of the hornbill will no longer echo throughout the valley, the forest floor will no longer have the splash of color from the pitta and the trees will no longer be inhabited by fruit doves and trogons.  I refuse to let that happen. I hope that one day I’d be that “elder” birder telling younger birders about Infanta  but instead of telling stories of what was, I would take them at 4am in the morning and show them what is.

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